For many people Passover is a burdensome week of excessive cleaning and extra dietary restrictions. In fact, for most Ashkenazi Jews, Passover has EXTRA extra dietary restrictions. In addition to true hametz, they typically avoid kitniyot – a category of food that includes rice, legumes, and sometimes even corn. But it doesn't necessarily have to be that way.
Jews Around the World Developed Different Traditions
Americans are most familiar with Ashkenazi Jewish traditions that developed and were brought to this country by Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe. Foodwise those traditions include what most people think of as “Jewish” food – matzo balls, gefilte fish, and kugel are some examples.
But Jews lived in and emigrated from many parts of the world, where they developed different traditions including many more than food choices. Sephardic Jews descended from Jews who were thrown out of Spain by the Inquisition in the late 1400s. Some fled north to the Netherlands, then to England and later to the English colonies; some fled south and across the Mediterranean and ended up in Morocco and Northern Africa. Other Jews, known as Mizrahi, were never in any part of Europe. Their diaspora formed mostly east of Israel, in the Syrian peninsula, Persia, Greece and Turkey. There were other pockets of Jews, most notably in Italy, India, and Ethiopia who don't fall into any of these categories. These non-European Jews developed their own prayers, tunes, literature, language, customs, and food traditions.
What does that have to with Passover?
The prohibition of hametz – leavened bread – is a Biblical commandment. The story tells that the Jewish slaves fled Egypt in such a hurry that their dough did not have time to rise. Later, when they finally baked it, the result was a flat bread or cracker. God commands us to avoid risen bread and eat matzo to remember our time in Egypt as slaves and our hasty departure.
According to Jewish LAW only five grains, can ferment and become hametz - wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. These are also the only grains that can be made into matzo and matzo is the only form in which they can be eaten. However, in the 13th century, European rabbis added additional restrictions to prohibit kitniyot – rice, dried beans, millet, and lentils. Those restrictions, developed only 800 years ago, have grown over time to include even more prohibitions including chickpeas, peanuts, soy, and other legumes.
Fundamentally, there is a difference between law and custom, halacha and minchag. Jewish law is derived directly from the Torah, with the details hammered out by the Rabbis of the early Common Era. For example, the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy derives from a single phrase in the Torah: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 23:13) It was THE RABBIS who determined the details of following this prohibition, that include using separate dishes.
However, it wasn’t until 1,200 years later that some rabbis in Europe decided that kitniyot might be confused with other, forbidden, items. These rabbis were concerned that grains of rice and grains of wheat could be mistaken for one another. So, in an abundance of caution, kitniyot were added to the list of forbidden items during Pesach. But, because the ban originated in Europe, Jews of Sephardic and Mizrahi background were not exposed to it and have always included kitniyot in their Pesach diet.
A Modern Decision
In a 2013 teshuvah (religious ruling), Rabbi David Golinkin, a Conservative authority in Israel, noted the reasoning behind the prohibition. At that time, the rabbis reasoned:
However, Rabbi Golinkin revealed that “…not only is the custom contrary to the opinions in the Talmud, but more than 50 different early sages reject it outright.”
So, we learn that even when the prohibition was new, there was disagreement about it.
In December 2015, the Rabbinic Assembly (RA), the rabbinic authority for the Conservative movement, took a long hard look at these additional restrictions. Rigorous research to find the original reasons for the prohibition revealed that it likely began with one rabbi, who it seems did not trust his own wife to know the difference between rice and wheat. As word spread from town to town, more and more rabbis began to follow this ruling in efforts not to appear lax in their kashrut. It is the classic example of a ubiquitous game of one-upmanship.
In addition to the seemingly bogus origin of the rule, the RA considered three modern concerns: 1) nutrition, 2) finances, and 3) Jewish unity. Personally, I will add a fourth, the consideration of highly processed food.
I will add this. Most of the ersatz chametz products, like Pesach noodles, cereal, and even mustard, are highly processed products whose ingredients include a lot of stabilizers and thickeners that aren’t necessary and can be avoided if we just eat real food.
Of course, the RA, while allowing kitniyot, left the decision whether to include them up to individuals. I choose to include them, especially at the Seder.